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Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 24, 2012

Picture this

Palo Alto Weekly Photo Contest winners showcase their art

The Weekly's annual photo contest turns 21 this year, but it's by no means limited to adults. As in years past, both adult and youth photographers have entered their top images: portraits, local views and photos brought back from beyond the Bay Area.

This wealth of images has been judged by a panel of four photographers, and the award-winners will take their bows at an Aug. 28 reception in Palo Alto's City Hall at 250 Hamilton Ave. A three-week exhibition follows at City Hall, showcasing the winning photos and several other entries of note.

The reception is scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with the exhibition running from Aug. 24 through Sept. 14, open business hours.

Sponsors of this year's contest are University Art and the Palo Alto Art Center.

You can see all the winners online here: http://www.PaloAltoOnline.com/photo_contest/photo2012

The judges

* Veronica Weber, Palo Alto Weekly staff photographer

* David Hibbard, nature photographer

* Angela Buenning Filo, landscape photographer

* Brigitte Carnochan, photographer and educator


Bay Area Images

Judge's comments

Bay Area Images is always one of my favorite categories to look through because I really enjoy seeing how photographers apply their vision and imagination to the familiar places in our backyards we often pass by or simply overlook. This year we had a great selection to choose our top-three winners from.

Paige Parsons' "We Are the Champions" feels like a moment in time that could have been recorded in the present day or 60 years ago. Three boys joyfully push their friend in a homemade wagon, the young driver fiercely focusing his gaze to the finish line while young onlookers stretch their necks for a better view of the fun. The composition, light and moment all work perfectly to capture an excellent slice of life that reflects the community and a playful spirit.

The other judges and I were also immediately drawn to Steve Goldband and Ellen Konar's "Welcome to Wash This" because of the excellent vision of a seemingly ordinary place, the laundromat. We loved the converging lines of the washers and dryers, the friendly greeting on the soap dispenser and the bold overhanging mural reminiscent of the ones commissioned during the New Deal. And we loved how the photographer was able to make such a compelling photo out of such an ordinary place.

Stephen Tull's "Night Flight," with its long nighttime exposure of Hangar One and the incoming and outgoing flight paths in the distance, was also a favorite. We loved the light, color and graphical elements, which created an original and unusual vision of an often-photographed Peninsula landmark.

First place

'We Are the Champions'

Paige K. Parsons

Every year, kids at Peninsula School in Menlo Park hold a go-cart race in the school's largest field. There are clouds of dust and wild creations and lots of excited squeals but no losers. Everybody wins.

In Paige K. Parsons' prize-winning photo, it's clear that the jubilant boys feel like champions. This is a landmark event for them: The eighth-grade boys were about to graduate from Peninsula, and for whatever reason they had never competed in the go-cart race before, Parsons said.

This time they were ready. After lots of work at home on the "incredibly well-engineered" go-cart, the boys competed this past June, Parsons said. "This was their very first race. You can see how excited they are."

Parsons' 13-year-old daughter just graduated from Peninsula, and her 9-year-old son still attends. The private school is a special place for the family and for Parsons, a professional photographer.

"I just love photographing people who are passionate about what they do. At Peninsula, it's just full of people like that and experiences like that," she said.

Parsons, who lives in Palo Alto with her family, usually shoots live-concert photography. (Her other first-prize photo, "Wayne," is on page XXX and depicts Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips.) She has earned prizes twice before in the Weekly's contest, but this is the first time she's taken the blue ribbon.

In a way, this photo has some of the same energy as a concert shot, with excited, glowing faces taking center stage. The boys seem to have a few intent fans on the sidelines, too.

Second place

"Welcome to Wash This," Steve Goldband & Ellen Konar

Third place

"Night Flight," Stephen Tull

Honorable mention

"Misty Oak Grove," Ken Fowkes

"Warp," Ryan Johnson


Judge's comments

The youth category of Bay Area Images also featured many strong choices for the judges to choose from this year. We felt Tim Aiken's "Abandoned" was a lovely photo with wonderful tones and composition. The worn-out rusting ship lies buried in the sand against a pink-hued landscape during sunset, becoming a poetic sacrifice to the elements of sand and water.

Arjun Narayen's long exposure of the waterfront by the Bay Bridge, titled "In The City," was also visually pleasing. We appreciated that the print was black and white, and it was obvious the photographer took care with the composition and exposure to evoke a quiet and thoughtful mood.

Monera Espinosa's "Grazing Sheep" is a pleasing pastoral scene defined by the rolling hills and the grazing sheep taking shelter in the shade. It almost feels as if we have been whisked away to New Zealand.

We also wanted to acknowledge Peter King's "Stanford Theatre: Then and Now" for its originality. Two frames of Stanford Theatre's history are placed side by side, showing the contrast and similarity of life then and now. The idea was great, but we would encourage the photographer to experiment and use photos taken at the same time of day.

First place


Tim Aiken

While he's been to about 45 countries, Gunn High School senior Tim Aiken has a resolution to photograph more often when he's close to home.

His atmospheric photo "Abandoned" is a good start. In between grand voyages overseas, the family likes to go on backpacking and hiking trips throughout the Bay Area. Aiken took this picture on one such journey, to Point Reyes (as one might expect from the name painted on the boat).

This large, abandoned fishing boat is a common point of interest in the area, rusting quietly just off the road, its white paint peeling and darkening. One day, as the family was driving back from a day hike in the Point Reyes National Seashore area, Aiken spotted the perfect sunset. Swiftly, he asked to be dropped off.

"I was facing east, so the clouds were lighting up at me. The ridge behind me blocked the light on the boat, so I got a nice diffused light on the boat but red light on the far distant hills," he said. "It was a nice moment."

Aiken, the son of two Stanford University computer-science professors, said he's interested in becoming an engineer. He imagines that photography will remain just a hobby but a serious and rewarding one.

When asked whether his parents have to suddenly stop the car a lot for him to take a photo, he laughed and admitted that they do. But as he continues to improve over time, he said, "I'm learning to see a photo before I look through the viewfinder. ... I've actually managed to cut back on the number of stops."

Second place

"In the City," Arjun Narayen

Third place

"Grazing Sheep," Montera Espinosa

Honorable mention

"Stanford Theatre: Then and Now," Peter King


Views Beyond the Bay

Judge's comments

There were many strong images in this category, making it difficult to single out a few for recognition. Everyone who submitted work is to be congratulated.

Often, it is an unexpected detail that makes an image exceptional. In the case of Mary Bender's image "Lavenderia," the three small birds are a delightful surprise. They provide a humorous contrast to the man busy with the laundry.

Aaron Meyer's landscape is about the passage of time as represented by the petroglyphs (our immediate human past), the snowy mountains (geologic time) and the star trails (cosmic time). I like how each of these elements has its own distinct space in the composition.

Laurie Naiman's "Desert Laundromat, Closed" gives us a different perspective on time: time as desolation. The laundromat was once a going concern, but that was long ago. In this image, the high-contrast printing, the tilted horizon and the ragged edge of the image all work together to convey the harshness of the desert environment. In the end, nature prevails.

Jamshid Varza's "Skull Rock" is a beautifully rendered study of form. The soft diffuse light from the clouds heightens the sculptural quality of the rocks, making them seem three-dimensional.

The grand spectacle of a weather event is on full display in Chris Holmes' dramatic landscape "Mono Lake at Dusk." The dramatic contrasts of storm light are often challenging to render in a photographic print, but Chris has done so beautifully.

David Golick captures a much quieter moment in his image "Evening in the Alabama Hills." I love how the soft light conveys a sense of stillness, yet everything in the scene seems to be moving toward the horizon, as if the puffy cloud in the sky and all those sagebrush bushes were scurrying home at the end of the day.

First place


Mary Bender

Mary Bender's photos capture more than just light. Each of her photos tells a story.

At 58, Bender said she has a passion for photojournalism because she feels like a spy when she takes pictures.

"I'm watching from the sidelines," she said. "It tells more than a snapshot or a travel shot or a portrait."

In 2011, Bender traveled to Cuba with a group of photographers from Foothill College. She shadowed local photographers, taking pictures of daily life in Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

"They invited us in and then went about their business," she said about "Lavenderia," her photo taken in a communal courtyard, where several families lived. "Their laundry was hanging up, and chickens were running around."

Bender became fascinated with clotheslines in Cuba, where washing machines are few and far between.

"I loved taking laundry pictures," she said.

She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in art history and earned her teaching credential from San Francisco State University, going on to be an art educator for around 25 years. Most of her work has been with nonprofits, such as the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View and Photo Philanthropy.

Despite her years of experience in the world of photography, Bender said she is still trying to improve.

"I've taken lots of bad (photos)," she said. "It's easy to snap, snap, snap ... but it's very hard to craft it, to capture, to be watchful, to be patient. ... It's a constant challenge."

Second place

"Silver-Haired Ancestor," Aaron Meyers

Third place

"Desert Laundromat, Closed," Laurie Naiman

Honorable mention

"Skull Rock," Jamshid Varza


Views Beyond the Bay

Judge's comments

Guy Singer's first-place photograph, "In Memory of Friends Gone," made good use of the dwindling light of sunset to intensify the hues in his scene. Also photographing at sunset, Tim Aiken draws us into an expansive mountainous landscape with the curve of the wind-whipped prayer flags in "Prayer at Sunset."

Hanna Oberman discovered an authentic moment in "Incan Couple" that raised as many questions as it answered and kept drawing us back. 


First place

'In Memory of Friends Gone'

Guy Singer

When capturing a moment through photography, the correct depth of field is imperative, but for Guy Singer, his photo's depth of emotion is what separated it from the rest.

The setting is Oahu, Hawaii. The event is a Shinnyo-en Buddhist lantern-floating ceremony, and Singer says it was one of the most incredible events he has ever witnessed.

"Thousands of people opening up their hearts; it was such an emotional event," Singer said. "There was no other photo I could submit."

Singer earned the trip to Hawaii by winning an essay-writing contest, and the photo he took there won the Kehillah Jewish High School graduate the Weekly contest on his return.

While this is Singer's second photo-contest victory (he took first place in the 2010 youth contest as well), he has been avidly snapping shots for a little less than three years. It all started with a discovery in the back of the family garage.

"My dad, in typical dad fashion, bought a nice camera in the '90s and then set it in the garage and never used it again," Singer said. "Then a few years ago, I found it and started playing around with it and got really interested."

This interest led his parents to give their son a new camera for his birthday, and Singer has put it to use with a photography blog.

In the fall, Singer will head to the University of California at Santa Barbara to study biopsychology, but he is sure that this won't be the end of his photography days.

Second place

"Prayer at Sunset," Tim Aiken

Third place

"Incan Couple," Hanna Oberman



Judge's comments

In addition to capturing an exact moment to reveal the essence of a person, this year's portraits display unusual conceptual creativity.

The subjects seem totally engrossed in the moment, sometimes aware of the photographer and sometimes not, and it's interesting to consider what difference that awareness makes in our experience of the portrait. This was a rich category this year.

It was difficult to limit our choices, but the three winners and the honorable mention photograph as well as the additional three images in the exhibition all deserve careful attention and admiration.

First place


Paige K. Parsons

When the confetti cannons went off at a Flaming Lips rock concert, and lead singer Wayne Coyne broke into a huge open-mouthed smile, photographer Paige K. Parsons figured she had a pretty good shot. She fired off her camera as Coyne ran around the stage of Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco holding a big homemade party popper.

Parsons felt good ("I figured I must have something good in that little burst") and felt even better when she finally saw the prize-winning image. Since then, she has loved hearing from people who were at the same February gig.

"For them, it really sums up the evening," she said.

Parsons balances her Palo Alto home life with the lively existence of a concert photographer, which she especially likes because it often lets her hang out with her kids in the afternoons before going out to work. The post-production can be done at home, and that takes up a lot more time.

Recently, Parsons spent 10 hours a day for three days shooting at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco.

"I have about 8,000 or 9,000 images to go through now," she said. "The actual photographing is just the beginning."

Working in Adobe Lightroom, which she uses for nearly all of her photos, Parsons edits judiciously — "nothing terribly special," she said. With "Wayne," she focused on the light balance because the venue had been so dark.

Before that, she'd had to pick the best image in a night's work: one shot out of a thousand. Fortunately, this one stood out.

Second place

"Untitled at the de Young," Laurie Naiman

Third place

"Bird of Prey," Charles Stotz

Honorable mention

"Desaturate," Steven Shpall



Judge's comments

The winners in this category relied on atmosphere and mood to strengthen their image.

Tim Aiken's arresting photograph "Eagle Hunter" captures the essence of the eagle as much as the eagle hunter. The judges always enjoy a precisely composed black-and-white photograph.

The energy of Guy Singer's "Kids Grown Up" couldn't be more different or more wonderfully theatrical. Both Singer's photograph, as well August McKay's enticing "Sister in Sunset" (chosen for exhibition), have captured something essential about being a teenager in this time and place.

Having seen many dog "portraits" over the years, I found that Ariel Axelrod's photo still found a way to stand out by getting up close and showing us the attention a girl pays to her best friend.

First place

'Eagle Hunter'

Tim Aiken

A family trip to Mongolia about a year ago was particularly productive for Tim Aiken, photography-wise. That's when he shot his first-place picture "Eagle Hunter" — and "Prayer at Sunset," which won second place in this contest's Views Beyond the Bay youth category.

Aiken knew even before getting on the plane that he wanted to see the eagle hunters in Mongolia; he'd been learning about them from the "Planet Earth" TV series.

"It's such a different form of hunting from anything else in the world," he said. "They get these eagles when they're fledglings to hunt these Arctic foxes." Usually Aiken turns his lens on landscapes, but here he tried something different. He succeeded in finding what he had hoped for: "the eagle and the hunter with the same expression."

Mother Nature cooperated, too. The cloudy day served up soft lighting, and a sprinkling of rain gave added texture to the bird's feathers.

Aiken took this photo in the far west portion of the country, a mountainous area where Mongolia meets China and Kazakhstan.

"The landscape is reminiscent of Alaska, let's say, with huge glacial valleys and forests and meadows," he said. "It's desolate in some ways but very beautiful."

It's the same landscape where Aiken captured "Prayer at Sunset," discovering prayer flags that had been left by climbers from Nepal.

While Aiken has never formally studied photography, he learns and photographs with his friend Arjun Narayen (who took second place in the Bay Area Images' youth division with "In the City") and family friend Hector Garcia-Molina. They've been mentors and peers to him.

Most of all, Aiken credits his parents for broadening his horizons on their many overseas trips: "I do get the opportunity to see things that other people don't see."

Second place

"Kids Grown Up," Guy Singer

Third place

"Girl's Best Friend," Ariel Axelrod

— Rebecca Wallace


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